By Gonzalo Sanchez
Vatican City, Dec 24 (efe-epa).- Pope Francis on Thursday officiated at a sparsely attended Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, urging the faithful to observe the government’s pandemic curfew and to aid the poor and those around the world who are being treated unjustly.
This year, the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica was moved from 9:30 pm to 7:30 pm and only about 150 people attended, not the thousands that usually jam the huge cathedral.
The pontiff told the gathering in his homily that “We often hear it said that the greatest joy in life is the birth of a child. It is something extraordinary and it changes everything. (A child) makes us feel loved but can also teach us how to love.”
“God was born a child in order to encourage us to care for others,” said Francis, who during his papacy has focused his attention, and thereby that of Catholics around the world, on helping the poor and those who are being unjustly treated.
He asked God to help him console others around the world, saying that “from this night (forward), all are my brothers.”
The Christmas Eve Mass commemorates the birth of Jesus and is one of the most important masses on the Christian calendar, if not the most important.
The faithful, priests, nuns and residents of the Vatican observed social distancing in the cathedral, with everyone sitting in the pews at least six feet apart and wearing facemasks.
In his homily, the pope said that the Christmas season is a period during which the faithful can be “born inside once again” and he cited in his remarks US poet Emily Dickinson, who wrote: “God’s residence is next to mine, his furniture is love.”
Francis posed a question to his listeners: “Why was the Son of God born in the poverty of a stable?”
“In the lowly manger of a darkened stable, the Son of God was truly present,” he said. “Why was he born at night without decent accommodation, in poverty and rejection, when he deserved to be born as the greatest of kings in the finest of palaces?”
“Why? To make us understand the immensity of his love for our human condition: even touching the depths of our poverty with his concrete love. The Son of God was born an outcast, in order to tell us that every outcast is a child of God,” the pontiff said.
“Dear sister, dear brother, never be discouraged. Are you tempted to feel you were a mistake? God tells you, ‘No, you are my child.’ Do you have a feeling of failure or inadequacy, the fear that you will never emerge from the dark tunnel of trial? God says to you, ‘Have courage, I am with you,'” he said.
The solemn ceremony, which – despite its name – for several years has not been celebrated at midnight, was moved up to 7:30 pm this year to respect the overnight curfew imposed nationwide by the Italian government. Rome has quarantined the country’s population over the Christmas holidays and people are only allowed out of their homes on the basis of urgent need.
The pontiff has undergone several coronavirus tests in recent months and a number of his staffers and other workers at the Vatican have become infected with the virus.
On Christmas Day, Francis will read his Christmas message to the world and will deliver the “Urbi et Orbi” blessing within the Apostolic Palace, the pontiff’s residence, and not from the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square where the pope normally holds that event.
Pope Francis – who before being elected pope was an Argentine cardinal – has invited the faithful this year to think about the quarantine restrictions as a way to discover the true meaning of Christmas apart from consumerism.